11 BarokbandidTwo Sides
Barokkbandið Brák
Sono Luminus SLE-70026/2 (sonoluminus.com)

It is not uncommon to find obvious and straightforward album titles within the classical music genre, leaving no doubt as to what a listener can and should expect. If one tallied up all the releases titled Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies, these recordings would make up an entire collection of their own. While it is only an entry point to the contents contained therein, a creatively titled recording can engage and entice a prospective listener, drawing them in with the promise of a unique artistic experience.

Such is the case with Icelandic period-instrument ensemble Barokkbandið Brák and their debut album Two Sides, a title which, at first glance, most clearly refers to its two discs of music. Upon reviewing its contents however, it becomes clear that Two Sides reflects the diverse nature of this extraordinary group, which has achieved renown in the interpretation of Renaissance and Baroque music but also as a commissioner of new music for period instruments.

This sense of discovery in music old and new permeates every selection on this recording, notably through the world premiere recording of the Violin Concerto in G by Swedish Baroque composer Johan Joachim Agrell and new commissions from Icelandic composers Þráinn Hjálmarsson, Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, and Kristinn Kristinsson.

What is most remarkable about this entire double album is the way in which every piece of music is treated individually, performed at the highest level with convincing interpretations. Whether the Agrell Concerto premiere, Vivaldi’s enthralling Concerto for 2 Violins & Cello in D Minor, or any one of the commissioned works, nothing seems unfamiliar or out of place.

Two Sides is a magnificent debut from Barokkbandið Brák that will be a valuable addition to any collection, especially for those who appreciate broad and diverse repertoire within the realm of period performance.

12 AmericanistThe Americanist
Elizabeth Newkirk
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0166 (brightshiny.ninja)

This new release of orchestral scores reduced for solo piano by Elizabeth Newkirk stakes out grounds for how American music must maintain its connection to the vernacular. Per Newkirk’s lengthy treatise in the liner notes, the mythos of America demands inclusion and recognition of popular musical idioms in the making of “serious” music. She especially points to the styles and forms developed in the African-American culture that energizes so much of today’s music. To that end, Newkirk provides three intra-bellum works that illustrate her point, all reductions of orchestral scores made by the composers themselves, and all infused with jazz and blues. 

Maurice Ravel’s reduction in some ways satisfies the way the full version can’t. In La Valse Newkirk proves herself a fine stylist, giving a more flexible version in terms of rhythm and dynamics than a conductor might ask of a full orchestra. These waltzes swoop into dips and pirouettes. (I leave it to pianists to tell me if I’m wrong about the heavy use of the sustain pedal). Gershwin’s An American in Paris is also entirely about movement. Newkirk notes that three distinct metres are assigned respectively to the American, French and British gait. (It’s so hard to believe the piece wasn’t written with Gene Kelly in mind). More than in the Ravel, I miss orchestral colours; maybe it’s just that Gershwin’s lightness needs the weight of the band, but to my mind, there’s no replacing the trumpet, the violins, the rhythm section. Their language is integral to the musical ideas.

William Grant Still’s Africa provides the substantial finale to the disc. Still’s music follows a similar aesthetic to Gershwin’s, blending Romantic tropes with blues influences. Materially, and in terms of length, it’s more substantial than the Gershwin, and more listenable, in fact. As has been noted elsewhere, there are not nearly enough recordings of his music, which makes this release so attractive. 

Newkirk’s treatise is most interesting when she leaves the rarified discussion of myth and philosophy in order to discuss how these three works fit so neatly into her thesis.

13 Polish OrganCantius
Gail Archer
Swan Studios MM22051 (meyer-media.com)

The pipe organ has been a vital part of musical history for centuries, and there are a small number of countries that have made tremendously impactful contributions to its physical construction and musical lineage, including the German Baroque composers (culminating in the works of J.S. Bach) and the 19th- and 20th-century French school, which led to the development of the organ symphony. With a heritage dominated by musical monoliths, it is easy to forget that there is worthwhile organ music written by composers in other countries not immediately considered synonymous with the pipe organ, including the Baltic States, Russia and Poland. 

It is this latter country that receives organist Gail Archer’s full focus on Cantius, a recording which presents highlights from two centuries of Polish composers and their works, ranging from Romantic symphonies to avant-garde masterpieces. Highlights include Felix Nowowiejski’s Symphony No.8 which, although written in one movement, is in three distinct sections, including a solemn funeral march, and Henryk Górecki’s Kantata. Górecki is perhaps Poland’s most famous 20th-century composer, whose Third Symphony – “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” achieved international recognition and established his place as one of the most important contemporary composers of the time.

Although many consider the pipe organ to be an old instrument that plays old music, there is still new material being written today, and it is wonderful to encounter a variety of 20th- and 21st-century composers and their works on Cantius, expertly interpreted by Archer. It is not an easy feat to achieve convincing performances of high-density modern scores, but she does so with apparent ease and undeniable success.

14 Florence Price PianoScenes in Tin Can Alley – Piano Music of Florence Price
Josh Tatsuo Cullen
Blue Griffin BGR615 (bluegriffin.com)

American pianist Josh Tatsuo Cullen performs a respectful tribute to African-American composer Florence Price (1887-1953) in seven of her solo piano works. Price, educated at the New England Conservatory, combined European classical music with American traditions including ragtime and boogie woogie in her over 300 compositions for various instrumentations from symphonies to vocal music. Her music is currently enjoying a renaissance.

The three-movement Scenes in Tin Can Alley (1928) opens with the energetic ragtime-influenced The Huckster. Price wrote program notes for the following movement, Children at Play. Kids play to energetic sounds until a slower melodic classical/pop sound has them stop to stare at an old woman looking for food. After a short silence, she leaves and the kids play again, to fun and fast piano. Price’s notes for Night include “the scene is sordid” with slow low-pitched, faster lines and swells featuring Cullen’s beautifully articulated calming phrase endings. Cullen’s amazing performance of the most virtuosic work here, Cotton Dance (Presto) (ca.1940s), is fast fast fast with boogie woogie sounds, chromatic lines/harmonies, high pitches and classical undertones making for fun dancing and listening. In the recently discovered five short Preludes (1926-1932) Price uniquely did not use descriptive titles. Many compositional techniques here, like No.3’s Allegro molto’s faster almost songlike quality to No.4’s Wistful. Allegretto con tenerezzaI’s slower classical sound featuring Cullen’s conversational solo playing between hands.

Price’s stylistically varied compositions are accessible listening, made all the more fantastic by Cullen’s inspired and detailed piano interpretations.

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15 Andrew ZhouPrésences Lointaines Vol. 2
Andrew Zhou
Solstice FY SOCD 394 (andrew-zhou.com)

Vladimir Jankélévitch, who lived from 1903 to 1985, was a French philosopher and musician who enjoyed a long academic career both in Prague and in Paris. He had definite ideas concerning music, among them that the art form was the only path to eternal life. Présences Lointaines – Distant Presences pays him a worthy tribute with a program of French piano music spanning a 300-year period performed by American Andrew Zhou. Zhou was a second-prize winner at the Concours International de Piano d’ Orleans and is currently a visiting lecturer at Cornell University.

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was a cousin of François Couperin and also an accomplished musician in her own right. Her seven-movement Suite in D Minor from the Pièces de Clavecin of 1707 is strong evidence of her skill as a composer and Zhou delivers an elegant and precise performance, at all times carefully nuanced.

Ravel is the only familiar composer on the disc, and his Prelude from 1913 – his shortest piece, lasting a mere minute and 13 seconds – is a languorous essay, while the Étude en blanc No.2 Élégie (Hommage à Ravel) by Didier Rotella (born in 1982) for prepared piano is hauntingly atmospheric.

Born in 1875, Antoine Mariotte spent the early part of his life as both sailor and musician. He later earned a reputation as both an operatic composer and administrator. His Piano Sonata from 1905 is very much in the French late Romantic tradition requiring formidable dexterity on the part of the performer, but Zhou handles the challenges with an uncompromising technique, bringing the disc to a rousing conclusion.

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16 Oswald Ludwig 3Ludwig : vol. 3
b9 orchestra
fony (pfony.bandcamp.com)

As is heard in all his creations, John Oswald’s musical vision is remarkably original. Here, in his latest Rascali Klepitoire release, Oswald’s knowledgeable artistic creativity conquers, quotes, mimics and refigures from all nine Beethoven symphonies into a 30-minute four-movement compilation with the intent to surprise. He guides and produces his self-described  “artificial-intelligence infused” synthetic orchestra,  including winds, strings, horns, percussion and vocals, using the NotePerformer engine, produced by Wallander Instruments of Stockholm. It “includes its own sounds encompassing a large-scale modern symphonic orchestra” based on “technologies bridging the gap between samples and synthesis.”

The opening vantage is tonal, technically detailed, with strict tempos and not much volume variation except for sudden loud crashing sections. In the shortest section bade, Oswald’s bits-and-pieces collection of loud percussion, slow sections and moving string lines is an interesting cross section of his and Beethoven’s writing. Love the contrasting instrumental lines in though. In venerable, Beethoven fans will love how Oswald juxtaposes familiar fragments to make a new sound, especially from Beethoven’s famous vocals.  

Three bonus items are also included. A bootleg recording of a live b9 performance is a welcome addition with the to-be-expected real instrument subtleties also illuminating how well the synthetic orchestra version works. Concentrated following of the 44-page full musical score, prepared by John Abram, (not including an updated final page), aids listening to the whirlwind music. Oswald’s 2000-word interview discusses his creative process here.

Throughout, Oswald’s quotes and juxtapositions of his own and Beethoven’s music are incredibly smart and well produced, and they sound better and better with each repeated listening!

01 Black Oak EnsembleEvery now and then a CD comes along of such stunning quality that it almost leaves you speechless. Such is the case with Avant l’orage – French String Trios 1926-1939, a 2CD set priced as a single disc, featuring seven beautifully crafted works, mostly by composers who aren’t household names, in simply superb performances by the Chicago-based Black Oak Ensemble of violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, violist Aurélien Fort Pederzoli and cellist David Cunliffe (Cedille CDR90000 212 cedillerecords.org).

The trios by Henri Tomasi, Robert Casadesus and Gustave Samazeuilh are world-premiere recordings; these three works, along with the trios by Jean Françaix and Gabriel Pierné were all written for and dedicated to the renowned Trio Pasquier. The other two trios here are by Jean Cras and Émile Goué. All seven works are high quality and extremely attractive, and it’s hard to imagine their ever being played better – or with better recorded sound, for that matter. 

02 Kang MOSAICThe Madrid-based violist Wenting Kang, ably supported by pianist Sergei Kvitko makes her album debut with Mosaic, a CD celebrating an era in which Spanish and French composers were frequently friends and collaborators (Blue Griffin Records BGR609 bluegriffin.com).

Nearly all the tracks were adapted by Kang from violin or cello arrangement scores, to great effect – in fact, Kang sounds like a violin or cello in many of the pieces; her beautifully clear tone and dazzling technical perfection resulting in a wide range of tonal colour.

There are two pieces by Debussy, two by Ravel and four by Fauré, with Spain represented by the Tárrega Recuerdos de la Alhambra in the challenging Ruggiero Ricci solo transcription, the Albéniz Tango and the da Falla Seven Popular Spanish Songs. Casals’ Song of the Birds and a solo Fantasia on the same song by the Japanese composer Akira Nishimura round out a superlative disc.

03 Charm Passion And AcrobaticsThere’s more outstanding viola playing on Charm, Passion, and Acrobatics – Music for Viola and Piano featuring violist Misha Galaganov and pianist John Owings (Navona NV6434 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6434).

The CD resulted from Galaganov’s purchase of a collection of music scores from the library of Armand Pushman, who died in 1999 aged 98, and who studied viola at the Paris Conservatory in his youth. Among the long-forgotten works were five featured here: the Nocturne (1905), the charming Prelude et Saltarelle (1907) and the short but intense Impromptu from 1922 by the French composer and conductor Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht (1880-1965), and the 1921 Sonata and 1939 Rhapsodie by the French composer and organist Pierre Kunc (1865-1941), whose manuscripts remained available only to copyright holders until 2021. All are premiere recordings.

Chausson’s final work, the 1897 Piece for Cello (Violin or Viola) Op.39 completes an impressive CD.

04 Amit PeledSolus et una (“Alone and together”) is a reflection on cellist Amit Peled`s journey during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he spent a lot of time playing the Bach cello suites in his home studio. The two that attracted him the most were the Suite No.4 in E-flat Major BWV1010 and the Suite No.5 in C Minor BWV1011, both presented on this deeply felt and immensely satisfying CD (CTM Classics 95269 15090 ctmclassics.com).

The cello is a Giovanni Grancino from c.1695, and Peled uses its deep, warm tone to maximum effect, creating smooth, flowing lines in beautifully judged readings that mine the emotional depths of these exceptional works.

An encore track is the one piece Peled was able to record with his students during the lockdown: an arrangement for eight cellos and piano of the Andante from Brahms` Symphony No.3. It`s a lovely end to a quite beautiful disc.

05 FantasiaWhen the Danish cellist Jonathan Swensen won the 2019 Windsor Festival International String Competition part of the prize was a debut recording with Champs Hill Records; his CD Fantasia – works for solo cello is the result (chandos.net/products/reviews/HR_168).

Swensen says that he wanted the studio recording to have “exactly the same energy that comes from a live concert,” and he certainly succeeds with a stunning recital that simply crackles with electricity and intensity.

The established works are the Ligeti Sonata for Solo Cello with a dazzling Capriccio second movement, Dutilleux’s Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher and a towering reading of the monumental Kodály Sonata for Solo Cello Op.8. A lesser-known work – which should surely be part of the standard repertoire – is Khachaturian’s terrific Sonata-Fantasie for Solo Cello Op.104 from 1974, and the CD’s title track is the 2021 commission Farewell-Fantasia by the Danish composer Bent Sørensen.

Outstanding technique and musical intelligence combine for a superb start to Swensen’s recording career.

06 CorazonCorazón (Heart) is the new CD from the American cellist John-Henry Crawford, accompanied for the most part by pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion and in three pieces by the South Korean guitarist JIJI (Jiyeon Kim) in a program that reflects the cellist’s love of Latin American music (Orchard Classics ORC100198 orchidclassics.com).

The major work is the Sonata in G Minor by the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce, also represented by the well-known Estrellita and the title track Por ti mi corazón. There are short single pieces by Leo Brouwer, Carlos Guastavino and Egberto Gismonti, as well as three by Heitor Villa-Lobos and two by Astor Piazzolla, whose closing track Oblivion features Crawford on multiple-tracked cello. The guitar provides the accompaniment in Estrellita and the Brouwer and Gismonti pieces.

Every track is a gem, with Crawford quite superb in music he says “pulls at the heartstrings and exudes romance and passion” – as does the playing on a captivatingly gorgeous disc.

07 Yo Yo Ma John Williams jpegLongtime collaborators John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma reunite for A Gathering of Friends, their new CD with the New York Philharmonic featuring the premiere recording of the revised version of Williams’ Cello Concerto, originally written for Ma in 1994. Selections from three of Williams’ movie scores are also heard in new arrangements with solo cello (Sony Classical 886449741939 sonyclassical.com/releases).

Don’t expect any Korngold-like movie material in the concerto – it’s an intense and highly compelling work very much in a modern style, with some lovely cello writing and a beautiful tonal final resolution.

Three pieces from Schindler’s ListTheme, Kraków Ghetto Winter 41 and Remembrances – need little introduction. The other movie tracks are With Malice Toward None from Lincoln and A Prayer For Peace from Munich, the latter a duo for Ma and guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas

Ma is joined by harpist Jessica Zhou in A Gathering of Friends – Highwood’s Ghost, written in 2018 for the Bernstein Centenary at Tanglewood, where there is a legend of a ghost in the manor house.

08 Robert PatersonIf you still believe that contemporary string quartets are always a tough listen then Robert Paterson String Quartets 1-3 in superb performances by the Indianapolis Quartet should change your mind (American Modern Recordings AMR1054 americanmodernrecordings.com).

This is clearly music to be enjoyed. String Quartet No.1 includes a “swing” first movement, a country waltz with a middle section called “Andrew Lloyd Webber Disease” and an Energetic Polka. String Quartet No.2 features Rigor Mortis, portraying the barking dog from the comic strip of the same name.

String Quartet No.3, commissioned by the Indianapolis Quartet explores “other voices,” including Tourette’s syndrome in Twist and Shout and an auctioneer and country fiddling in Auction Chant.

It’s imaginative, hugely entertaining and quite brilliant writing, with Paterson always in total control of style and structure.

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09 Prism IVPrism IV – Beethoven Mendelssohn Bach is the penultimate release by the Danish String Quartet in their Prism project, where a Bach fugue is connected to a late Beethoven quartet that is in turn connected to a quartet by a later master (ECM New Series ECM2564 ecmrecords.com/shop).

Bach’s Fugue in G Minor from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier opens the disc, followed by an intense performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No.15 in A Minor Op.132, published in 1826. Crystal-clear definition, terrific ensemble, dynamics and tone all make for an outstanding reading.

The standard never drops in Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No.2 in A Minor Op.13, begun in July 1827 just months after Beethoven’s death. Mendelssohn was fascinated by Beethoven’s late quartets, and his Op.13 continues their progress towards the new Romanticism. 

10 Mozart ArmidaThe 2CD set of Mozart String Quartets Vol.5 is the final volume in the series by the Armida Quartet (Avi 8553496 avi-music.de).

The two earliest quartets are No.3 in G Major K156 and No.5 in F Major K158 from a group of six written in Milan in 1772. The quartets No.10 in C Major K170, No.11 in E-flat Major K171 and No.13 in D Minor K173 are from the six “Viennese” quartets written the following year after Mozart’s exposure to Haydn’s recently published string quartets.

Finally, there are two works from the six “Haydn” quartets that followed the publication of Haydn’s own Op.33 set of six in 1783: No.15 in D Minor K421 and No.16 in E-flat Major K428.

The Armida Quartet is working with the publisher G. Henle Verlag on a new Urtext Edition of the Mozart quartets, and their insight and attention to detail are evident throughout finely judged performances.

11 Haydn TakacsThere’s more top-notch quartet playing, this time from the Takács Quartet, on Haydn String Quartets Opp.42, 77 and 103 (Hyperion CDA68364 hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68364).

The String Quartet in D Minor Op.42 was the first following the huge success of Haydn’s Op.33 set. The two Op.77 quartets – No.1 in G Major and No.2 in F Major – were the final two quartets that Haydn completed, the two middle movements of a quartet unfinished at his death and published as Op.103 completing the CD.

The Takács Quartet has previously released CDs of Haydn’s Op.71 and Op.74 Quartets to great acclaim and it’s easy to hear why, with bright, clear playing, a lovely dynamic range and a resonant recording making for a delightful disc.

12 Saudade Pliny FernandezThe Brazilian guitarist Plínio Fernandes, now resident in London, makes his CD debut with Saudade (Nostalgia), a “virtuosic, soaring melodic set” combining his two passions – the popular songs of Brazil and the classical tradition of Villa-Lobos (Decca Gold 4857617 pliniofernandesmusic.com).

It’s the familiar Five Preludes of Villa-Lobos that are at the centre of a very attractive recital, the other 13 tracks featuring songs by, among others, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Milton Nascimento, Violeta Parra and Jacob do Bandolím, mostly in arrangements by Sergio Assad. Guest artists are cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, his violinist brother Braimah and vocalist Maria Rita.

“An entrancing collection,” says the publicity blurb. And rightly so.

13 Douze Guitares a ParisForestare, the Montreal ensemble of 12 guitars and a double bass celebrates its close ties with France on Douze Guitares à Paris, an album dedicated to works by Debussy and Ravel and compositions by contemporary French guitarists Roland Dyens and Arnaud Dumond (ATMA Classique ACD2 2835 atmaclassique.com/en).

A dozen guitars sounds like a lot of separate voices, but the arrangements here are all in four parts with three players assigned to each, a system essentially ensuring a strong, even tone with no loss of dynamic range. 

Hamsa by Dyens (1955-2016) is followed by Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. An effective transcription of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye comes between the two impressive works by Dumond (born 1956): the terrific Allegro barbaro for ten guitars, double bass and two soloists, and his Lumières sur le Saint-Laurent for solo electric guitar and classical guitar ensemble.

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14 Beethoven DeMaineThere’s another 2CD set of Beethoven Complete Music for Piano and Cello, this time by Robert deMaine, the principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and pianist Peter Takács (Leaf Music LM233 leaf-music.ca).

The five sonatas – Op.5 Nos.1 & 2, Op.69 and Op.102 Nos.1 & 2 – are joined by the three sets of variations: the 12 Variations in G Major on Handel`s “See the conqu’ring hero comes, the 12 Variations in F Major on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” and the Seven Variations in E-flat Major on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen”, both from Mozart`s Die Zauberflöte.

DeMaine plays with a quite dark and rich tone, but tends to sound a bit muffled or indistinct at times, as if set too far back in the balance. There’s fine playing and ensemble work here though, particularly in the really tricky Allegro vivace movements.

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15 Debut Amorim RufinoDuoDebut is the first recording by the Brazilian-Canadian Amorim-Rufino Duo of violinist Vladimir Rufino and violist Fabiola Amorim in a recital of somewhat uneven musical and technical quality (Azul AMDA1755 azulmusic.com.br).

The 1789 Sonata No.1 by Paul Wranitzky and the 1788 Duo in C Major Op.19 No.4 by Franz Anton Hoffmeister open the disc, the latter the stronger piece with some particularly good viola work. The Villa-Lobos Duo from 1946 is followed by the world-premiere recording of Two Hearts in Concert, the short 2021 work written for the duo by Canadian composer Frank Horvat. The best work in the recital, Bohuslav Martinů’s Three Madrigals H.313, closes the disc. 

There’s competent playing of challenging works here, although the recorded sound could be better balanced and warmer.

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